Kresse: ‘This place means everything’

College of Charleston head coach John Kresse talks to Marcus Woods (No. 12) and Marion Busby (No. 5) during an NIT game at Providence in 1995. Staff/File

John Kresse was famously meticulous while leading the College of Charleston basketball program from obscurity to four NCAA Tournament trips and two NIT appearances. So how long do you think he worked on his College of Charleston Athletics Hall of Fame acceptance speech?

An entire weekend?

Several days?

Not even close.

“About four weeks,” said Kresse, who has had as much to do with the growth and positive perception of the school as anyone in recent history. “I always feel that preparation is necessary to any kind of success.”

None of the players Kresse coached while going 560-143 from 1979-2002 are surprised. Many of them will be on hand Saturday morning at Silcox Gymnasium as Kresse is presented for overdue induction by former College of Charleston President Alex Sanders.

“I could have gone to Tennessee, Dayton, South Carolina and St. John’s as their head coach,” Kresse said. “I turned those down to stay with the program that I loved. It was exciting and fun at the same time.”

It’s not as if Kresse has slipped into shuffleboard. At 71, he remains a special assistant to athletic director Joe Hull, teaches a Techniques of Coaching class and does color commentary on television broadcasts of select Cougar games held on John Kresse Court. His wife, Sue Sommer-Kresse, has held various executive duties at the school even while battling ovarian cancer.

Tests have been favorable for three years since her last surgery, Kresse said.

“You do a lot of praying, and you think about it every day,” he said. “You thank the Lord for giving us each day together. We’re blessed right now.”

Requisite emotion will flow as Kresse strategizes his way through the speech. The love affair with “a place that means everything to me” began in 1979 when Kresse was hired to get the best of fellow NAIA District 6 foes such as Erskine, Coker and Claflin. He was fresh from Lou Carnenesecca’s staff at St. John’s, which had just suffered a one-point loss to Penn in an NCAA Tournament Elite Eight game. Friends told him he was nuts to take such a low-level job.

Four years later, the Cougars won the 1983 NAIA national championship, winning five games in five days in Kansas City’s Kemper Arena. The biggest hurdle was Chaminade, the tiny Hawaiian school that earlier that season pulled one of the great upsets in sports history, stunning No. 1 Virginia and All-American center Ralph Sampson. But Steve Yetman and Greg Mack were too much for the Silverswords (66-65 semifinal win) and West Virginia Wesleyan (57-53 title game victory).

Kresse called it “a magic carpet ride,” a line he would dust off again and again after basketball surprises.

Transportation will be part of the Kresse speech. A program that would jet to NCAA and NIT postseason appearances once traveled exclusively in a beat up school bus, maroon and white. The College of Charleston went up and down I-26 playing NAIA foes — Lander, Voorhees, Limestone, Morris. The real magic was the almost seamless upgrade to NCAA Division I. Recruiting disadvantages that came with a six-year compliance period were shattered on the night of Jan. 16, 1993.

The Cougars upset No. 8 Georgia Tech, 84-67, one week after Bobby Cremins’ Yellow Jackets beat No. 1 Duke.

“That Georgia Tech win really put us on the national basketball map,” Kresse said.

One season later, the College of Charleston beat odds and dumbfounded bracketologists to claim an NCAA Tournament at-large bid. When Kresse emerged from the locker room at Rupp Arena in Lexington, Ky., to see a large crowd of Cougar fans waiting to see the College of Charleston preparing to take on 17-year-old Tim Duncan and Wake Forest, he smiled.

“I knew our program had arrived,” he said.

Pressed, Kresse named his best teams: 1983 and 1997.

The 1997 team went 29-3 and beat Maryland in an NCAA Tournament game. The only losses were to Kentucky in the Great Alaska Shootout final, at Oklahoma State and to eventual national champ <URL destination="https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=x8Y4Xe9CEL8">Arizona (73-69) in a second-round NCAA Tournament game.

</URL>Best wins?

Three stick out: the 1983 NAIA title game, the 1997 Maryland upset and a 66-64 victory over No. 3 North Carolina in Charlotte on Dec. 5, 1998.

Players?

Too many to mention.

But …

“These are players we recruited from the state of South Carolina: Steven Johnson, Anthony Johnson, Marion Busby, Thad Delaney, Greg Mack, Shane McCravy, Jermel President, Sedric Webber, Jody Lumpkin, Rodney Conner, Mark Himes,” Kresse said. “Somehow, some way they didn’t go to Clemson, South Carolina, Furman or Wofford. We kept a lot of state-grown talent. Recruiting is the lifeblood of any program and that was the key to our success.”

Assistant coaches Rich Haddad, Sam Hare, Dwayne Grace, Gregg Marshall and others had a lot to do with that.

The Hall of Fame tribute itself,” Kresse said, “is a humbling and very exciting honor.” Kresse will be honored along with two other 2015 Hall of Fame members — Daniel Dukes, former College of Charleston Senior Vice President for Governmental Affairs and men’s golf head coach, and Anita Condon van de Erve, former executive director of The Cougar Club.

But this won’t be Kresse’s first major speech at the College of Charleston. The freshly crowned NAIA champion gave the commencement speech to the Class of ’83.

“We came in together, they as freshmen and I as a new head coach,” Kresse said. “That was one of the thrills of my life to be with that class on their big day on a Sunday afternoon.”

That was 32 years ago. Through accomplishments and diligence, John Kresse has been working on his Hall of Fame speech ever since.

Follow Gene Sapakoff on Twitter @sapakoff